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Adm. Jeremy M. "Mike" Boorda, who killed himself after questions were raised about two of his Vietnam-era decorations, may have had a right to wear the combat "V" pins after all, according to a 1965 Navy awards manual and interviews with former top military officers.

That disclosure came as the military mourned the loss of Boorda, the Navy's highest ranking officer, and struggled to understand the reason for his suicide. Boorda, 56, shot himself in the chest at his home in the Washington Navy Yard Thursday. He did so shortly after being told two magazine reporters were coming later in the day to question his right to have worn two tiny bronze pins normally awarded for combat duty.Defense Secretary William J. Perry, speaking Friday at Armed Forces Day celebrations at the opening of the annual air show at Andrews Air Force Base in surburban Maryland, dedicated the day to Boorda and said his death was "a loss to the Navy and the nation."

Boorda killed himself after leaving two notes expressing concern that the controversy over the combat "V" pins would destroy his reputation and damage the Navy. Reporters with a small news service that searched the awards record contended Boorda did not have a right to wear the pins, saying that his award citations failed specifically to give him that right.

However, the Navy awards manual issued in 1965, in the early years of the Vietnam conflict, appears to vindicate Boorda's decision to wear the "V" pin on at least one of the ribbon decorations at issue-his Navy Commendation Me-dal.

The manual says that the "V" pin can be worn on the Navy Commendation Medal, as well as two other decorations, if the award "is for acts or services involving direct participation in combat oper-a-tions."

Former chief of naval operations Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. said in an interview Friday that the language in the 1965 manual leaves "up to the interpretation of the individual" whether the "V" can be worn, assuming that the individual served in a combat zone. According to the citations for both the medals at issue, Boorda served on ships off Vietnam that engaged in combat operations.

The manual did not list the other decoration at issue in the Boorda case, the Navy Achievement Medal, as one for which the combat "V" would be awarded. But Zumwalt said he was confident Boorda also could properly wear the "V" pin on that ribbon. Zumwalt, who played a key role in the Navy's Vietnam operations, said the awards instruction backed the widespread belief among many naval officers operating in Southeast Asia. "You just assumed a ribbon authorized in a combat area (as Boorda's was) carries with it the `V,' " Zumwalt said.